Study shows video games boost children’s cognitive performance

A large study indicates that this popular hobby may also have cognitive benefits.
Oscar Wong/Getty Images A large study indicates that this popular hobby may also have cognitive benefits.

Oscar Wong/Getty Images

A large study indicates that this popular hobby may also have cognitive benefits.

RECREATION – While it’s common for parents to worry about the possible negative consequences of video games on their children, a large study published Monday, October 24 in the medical journal JAMA Network Open indicates that this popular pastime could also have cognitive benefits.

Previous studies had focused on the negative effects of video games, such as depression or increased aggression. But these studies are limited by their small number of participants, especially those that use brain imaging, says the study’s lead author, Bader Chaarani, assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Vermont.

With his colleagues, he analyzed data from the large study on the cognitive development of the adolescent brain (ABCD in English), funded by the American Institutes of Health (NIH).

They reviewed participants’ responses, cognitive test scores and brain imaging of some 2,000 children aged 9 and 10, divided into two groups: those who never play video games and those who play every day 3 hours or more.

This length was chosen because it exceeds the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation of one or two hours of video games for older children.

What causal link?

Both groups had to perform two tasks. For the first, arrows pointing left or right were shown to the children, who had to click on the corresponding button as quickly as possible. They also had to not press any button if a panel “stop” displayed instead, a way of measuring their ability to control themselves.

For the second task, they were shown a first face and then a second, later, and they had to say if they belonged to the same person, this time testing their working memory, a short-term memory.

After correcting for certain statistical biases related to, among other things, parental income, intelligence quotient and mental health symptoms, the researchers discovered that children who played video games performed systematically better at their tasks.

During the tests, the children’s brains were observed using specific imaging techniques. Those of gamers showed more activity in areas of the brain associated with attention and memory. “The findings raise the interesting possibility that video games provide a cognitive learning experience with measurable neurocognitive effects”, conclude the authors of this study. However, it is not yet possible to know whether these cognitive performances lead to playing more, or whether it is the fact of playing more that improves these performances, specifies Bader Chaarani.

His team hopes to get a clearer answer with the study continuing when the children are older. This will also exclude other variables such as the children’s home environment, physical activity and quality of sleep.

“Too much screen time is of course overall bad for mental health and physical activity”, notes Bader Chaarani. But his results, he adds, show that playing video games might be a better use of that screen time than watching videos on, say, YouTube, which has no detectable cognitive effects.

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